Most people know that Jesus is quoted in the Bible as saying, “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you.” In real life, most of us find it incomprehensible that others can’t easily forgive us when we wrong them. We might sometimes publicly proclaim that they are “hypocrites” or (I can’t think of any more family-friendly terms that I can use here on this blog. I am thinking of a few that I read occasionally in my mysteries.) We might even convince ourselves, and try to convince others, that the situation isn’t really what it seems – we are really the ones being wronged here. It seems an excuse always offers itself for duty. Then when our turn comes to forgive someone else, we too often stiffen our backs, and with a strained facial expression and tight lips, say the words that indicate forgiveness while actually harboring a sense of “Who does he/she think he/she is? How dare he/she treat me that way?”
Frederick Buechner wrote that forgiveness is a way of saying, “You have done something unspeakable, and by all rights I should call it quits between us. Both my pride and my principles demand no less. However, although I make no guarantees that I will be able to forget what you’ve done and though we both may carry the scars for life, I refuse to let it stand between us. I still want you for my friend.”
St. Francis taught that when others fall, we are to bend down and pick them up. This certainly follows that last teaching of “community” in a logical progression. Too often those who consider themselves Christians react to others’ moral failings with righteous indignation and an attitude of moral superiority.
But compassion includes not only forgiveness but also generosity with those who have fewer material goods. One of the most revealing things about a person’s inner faith is the way she/he treats those who are downtrodden. The compassionate person is able to see the homeless and/or unbathed street person not as an eyesore or nuisance but as a human being deserving of kindness and care. Thomas Merton said, “Love does not give money, it gives itself. If it gives itself first and a lot of money too, that is all the better. But first it must sacrifice itself.” St. Paul said, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
To improve your capacity for compassion and show your love for others, try these:
- Whether you approve or disapprove of what another is saying, don’t critique it. Just try to understand the other person.
- When in disagreement, don’t work hard to promote your agenda, try to comprehend the other person’s.
- Practice listening to people’s complaints and grievances until the words go through your brain and to your heart. Listen until you feel what the other person feels.
- Forgive someone who hurt you recently (a family member who slighted you? A telemarketer who calls repeatedly? Someone who took advantage of a position of authority and trust? A co-worker who took credit for your work or idea?)